People have been dreaming of smaller, thinner, lighter, more responsive, and increasingly intuitive devices for decades. From notebooks to smart phones and even wearable technology, we’re beginning to see device designs move into new realms.

As an inventor, futurist, and entrepreneur, I could not be more excited about what’s next for haptics and design. The idea of a neo-sensory age of computing is upon us, and the next dimension in consumer electronics design will enliven our senses by combining natural touch, vibrations, sounds, and real-time surface deformation.

Multi-Sensory Interaction

Haptics refers to the tactile feedback we get in response to touching a physical object and is an essential part of the neo-sensory age. This new era in computing gives us a much richer and more fulfilling way of interacting with our devices.

In the physical world, every touch action comes with sensory feedback that reinforces the action. However, this integral action-reaction process is missing in the course of computing and human-device interaction. For example, with current touchscreens you only feel the glass and not the virtual object under your finger.

The neo-sensory age takes us far beyond the traditional modes of sight and touchscreen engagement by bringing a more natural sense of touch to human-computer interaction. This new level of interaction requires new technologies using advanced force and position sensors to detect user touch at precise locations, as well as actuators to create the localized tactile and acoustic feedback to animate our devices.

The combination of sensors and actuators will act as a second skin for devices, capable of providing meaningful tactile and acoustic effects synchronized with touch actions. The result is a wider range of feedback or vibration for hundreds of different activities and messages. The true power of haptics is that it brings life to our devices through electronic sensory feedback.

Reengineering Design And User Experience

As haptics emerges as one of the latest advances in electronics, it will have a major impact on user experience and device design. Developing new, interactive sensory experiences will uproot traditional modes of product design. Designers will be exposed to a new dimension of tools and capabilities, and they will be challenged to completely rethink the traditional ways of designing devices.

New designs will account for how users will engage with devices, ways to improve person-to-person communication, and eventually how to expand human capabilities. User experience architects, professional designers, consumer electronics manufacturers, and component makers will all participate in this significant shift in product development and design, which will impact not only what we hold in our hands and wear on our bodies, but also the ways in which devices are conceptualized, designed, and manufactured.

Assessing Available Technology

The availability of new technologies completely transforms the design mindset and opens doors to the possibility of new design types. Aside from simply outdated technologies, there are far better options emerging that create precise localized HD haptics and offer advanced features such as sound and deformation.

Available innovations include piezoceramic and electro-active polymer (EAP) technologies. While piezoceramics and EAPs are materials that bend and change shape under an electric field, there are inherent differences in their working mechanisms and features offered.

Piezoceramic technology is a type of ceramic material that actuates by bending and changing shape via an electrical polarization process. It can produce a considerable amount of force. Even though it is very strong, the material is limited in that it can only minimally change shape, meaning that it undergoes small amounts of strain. In addition, it is not very flexible and is susceptible to damage.

Another available technology is ferroelectric EAPs, such as electro-mechanical polymers (EMPs). EAPs differ from piezoceramic materials in that polymer chain restructuring changes the shape of the material. When an electric charge is applied, the formerly randomly structured polymer chains in the material line up in one direction, which causes the material to elongate and stretch.

EAP materials can withstand high strains and typically require comparable actuation voltage to piezoceramics. EAPs also boast low power consumption and require no electrical current to keep the material actuated.

Best Haptic Technologies

A struggle exists in the constant need to balance the demands of thinner, lighter, and flexible devices with the availability of scalable, reliable technology. With new haptic technologies, the design landscape is broadened with new possibilities and is open to truly groundbreaking product designs (see the figure).

The piezoceramic and EAP technologies previously explored are definitely exciting, but both have strengths and weaknesses. When comparing the inherent physical properties of these material technologies, EAPs such as electro-mechanical polymers stand out as a more realistic approach to integrating haptics into consumer electronics.

EAP technologies complement new component technologies such as flexible displays and provide a more practical feature set. For example, piezoceramic materials create a vibration across the entire material or device area, while EMPs provide haptic vibrations locally, in a precise location on the device.

Some EAPs such as electro-mechanical polymers are ultrathin, flexible, and light and can be tuned to create localized HD haptics, emit sound, and provide real-time visible morphing. These physical characteristics, along with other features, greatly improve in device form-factor design, eliminating bulky materials that take up valuable component space—which is particularly important as device designs continue to adopt thinner, lighter, and sleeker form factors.

Design Considerations

When evaluating haptic technology for design, manufacturers and designers should consider several aspects that will help improve and enhance the overall form factor and product capabilities, including durability, performance, power consumption, and operating voltage.

Durability is critical because it refers to the repeated usage of the component over its lifetime and to its ability to withstand the elements. Designers familiar with piezoceramic materials understand well how EMP actuators function. However, they may not yet have seen the difference between flexible and rigid materials and the impact they have on overall product design.

Using actuators that are highly flexible and thinner than a human hair can have a revolutionary impact on design and device function, which drives device size and the super-slim form factors we’re beginning to see on the market.

Haptic feedback is provided by the vibrating surfaces with which the user interacts. Performance is especially important because it refers to the strength of vibration, how the vibration feels to the user, and how the component performs in different scenarios.

For example, your phone touchscreen performs well if it is sensitive to user touch in a variety of conditions but not too sensitive to register false input. Piezoceramic materials can operate at a wide range of frequencies, just like EAPs, but can still only vibrate the entire material. On the other hand, some EAPs can vibrate the material locally, providing customized feedback to a precise point under a user’s finger or wherever the user touches.

Power consumption and operating voltage are also key factors in integrating haptic technology, because power is used to actuate and operate the actuator. Depending on the application, piezoceramics, EAPs, and EMP technologies are comparable in their power function.

Haptics For The Future

Haptics is a very powerful silent medium and a source of life. It is not until you hold a physically morphing device in your hand that you realize its power and revolutionary capabilities. Although people have been dreaming about living devices for many years, the technology available to achieve them is finally available.

A new paradigm shift in how we conceptualize devices and what we want them to do is underway. We expect to enter a new era of haptics in 2014, where we begin to realize a fourth dimension of computing and user experience.

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Christophe Ramstein is president and CEO of SPS (Strategic Polymer Sciences). He holds a PhD in applied mathematics from the Polytechnic Institute in France and has authored more than 40 patents and papers during the course of his more than 20-year career. Formerly, he was CTO of Immersion Corp. and president and CEO of Haptic Technologies (acquired by Immersion). He has held senior management positions at Immersion Medical and Industry Canada as well.